Turning the Spotlight on Economic Liberty

July 25, 2014

By Chip Mellor

IJ strives to set the terms of debate in all we do. Most notably, that involves elevating public appreciation of the principles at the heart of our work. We take on issues that affect people of modest means who lack access to media or political clout, which means the general public and the media may be unaware of how widespread and important these issues are. Our challenge, as we percolate issues up the appellate ladder in court, is to raise these issues to national awareness. We did that with school choice and eminent domain abuse and we have now done it with economic liberty, as recent coverage of occupational licensing attests.

Challenges to occupational licensing laws lie at the heart of our economic liberty work because the laws so often arbitrarily deny people their right to pursue an honest living. In the 1950s one in 20 people needed the government’s permission in the form of a license in order to work. Today that figure approaches one in three, and frequently these laws do nothing more than protect existing businesses from competition. We work hard to show how ubiquitous and harmful these laws are in occupation after occupation. The most comprehensive national assessment to date, our 2012 strategic research report License to Work, documented how widespread and burdensome licensing laws are for lower-income workers and aspiring entrepreneurs in 102 occupations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, over the last several years, we ramped up our economic-liberty-related litigation significantly, achieving major victories along the way.

With increasing media interest, we could see the issue gaining greater momentum and crossing over to new outlets and reaching new audiences. In April, Andie Dominick of The Des Moines Register was named a Pulitizer Prize finalist for a series of editorials criticizing licensing laws in Iowa, drawing heavily on License to Work and the expertise of IJ staff. University of Minnesota Professor Morris Kleiner recently took to the pages of The New York Times to declare that the “growth of occupational regulation has prompted rare bipartisan opposition.” He’s right. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria also decried on his show that occupational licensing laws are “a serious problem for the American economy, hampering growth and burdening the system with nonsensical rules and regulations.”

The same week, Boston University Law School Professor James Bessen systematically dismantled occupational licensure on Vox.com, a brand-new media forum edited by well-known left-leaning bloggers Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias. Citing License to Work and highlighting several IJ cases, Bessen explains how “at a time when too many Americans are out of work, excessive licensing regulations create a serious barrier to economic opportunity for workers.” In Room to Grow, a much-discussed new book sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and edited by Yuval Levin, licensing laws are recognized as an impediment to economic growth. And recently, The Economist ran two features on the negative impact of occupational licensing in the same issue. The author urged, “Reviewing every existing licence would be a start: do you really need the state’s permission to be an interior designer or hairdresser … Leviathan’s tentacles are strangling economic growth, and cutting some of them back would be a cheap way to promote it.”

We still have a way to go before we restore constitutional protection for economic liberty, but we can take heart that occupational licensing laws are now viewed with skepticism by liberals, conservatives and libertarians. That’s real progress and it provides the foundation for future success.

Chip Mellor is IJ’s president and general counsel.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.